Karachi: First Stop on 'Urban Frontier' Tour

Karachi, Pakistan, is one of the largest cities in the world. Next week, Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep will explore how this mega-city works. Co-host Renee Montagne talks with him for a preview of a new series on large and growing cities called "The Urban Frontier."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Persian Gulf developers are also investing heavily in the city. We'll from in the coming week. Massive condo towers are rising on the waterfront of Karachi, Pakistan. It's one of the largest cities in the world, and in the coming week, our own Steve Inskeep will be exploring how this mega-city works.

And Steve's on the line with us. Hi, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP: Hi there, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Where are you calling us from right now?

INSKEEP: Right now I'm at the sales office for a gigantic development - more than 40 towers - that are just starting to be built on the beachfront in Karachi, Pakistan. This building has giant photographs on the outside showing happy, affluent people playing around. It's perhaps a different image than people might imagine for this huge city. It's one of the largest in the world - 12 million, 15 million, 18 million people, take your pick.

But developers are coming here and making huge investments the same way that they are in places like Jordan or Egypt. There's a huge demand for housing in this part of the world.

MONTAGNE: Well, we'll be hearing about other cities in months to come. You wanted to start in Karachi. Why?

INSKEEP: Because it is such a large city, because it is in a country that Americans worry about a lot - Pakistan - also because I'd been to this city before, frankly, and it's a fascinating and vast place. Karachi is the economic center of Pakistan. Their equivalent of Wall Street is here, their equivalent of the Federal Reserve is here; and yet it is also a city where something like half the population lives in illegal houses.

Basically illegal developer goes out, seizes a plot of land, chops it up into tiny, tiny slices of land, sells those bits of land, and then you go and build your illegal house, unless you fail to pay the right bribe to a policeman in which case your house can be knocked down. And so you have an incredible contrast of high and low and an incredibly rapidly changing and growing city, and that's the story in many parts of the world.

MONTAGNE: And what would an American recognize there in Karachi?

INSKEEP: I think what an American would recognize is the entrepreneurial spirit, whether it is someone trying to build a building or whether it is a guy in one of these tiny illegal houses who takes a bus all the way across town to sell fruit drinks and make the equivalent of two or three dollars a day. I think what might dismay people is the inside nature of power.

There is a very small group of people who seem to battle each other for control of this place. A big factor is the Pakistani military. They're actually huge, huge landowners. They are partners in this real estate project that I'm standing on, for example.

And so you have this system that seems to close many people out. And so there's something of a struggle there.

MONTAGNE: And of course you'll be coming to us all next week from Karachi. Tell us about the sort of people that you'll be introducing us to.

INSKEEP: We're going to do profiles all week long of different people. We're going to begin with an ambulance driver who has had to clean up after a lot of Karachi's political violence. It's sometimes ethnic violence and sometimes questions of power and land and real estate. And then we're going to get into those questions of development and real estate.

We're going to meet the mayor who somebody here compared to Rudy Giuliani. We're going to meet critics of that mayor. We're going to meet people who are building illegal houses and people who are building giant developments all around this city.

MONTAGNE: Steve, really looking forward to it and glad to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Thanks, Renee. See you soon.

MONTAGNE: MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep on the line with us from the edge of a vast new development in Karachi on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

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